Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Dir. John M. Stahl. Starring Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain

Leave Her to Heaven reminds me less of other noirs and more of stories of the bad seed, which is all the more interesting because the film predates the first known use of the term by some years. Ellen (Tierney) is not a traditional femme fatale. She is not after money or power, nor is she engaged in double-crossing some sap because she enjoys the feel of it. She is not fronting for a syndicate or even for the cops. There’s something off in Ellen, a wrongness that is not initially apparent to men who are flattened by her significant beauty and snake-eyed charm. Her family seems to have recognized it first. Her father she loved very deeply, we are given to understand, and while at first that seems like merely intense devotion it starts to take on a different tone as we hear her mother (Mary Phillips) discuss her daughter. When Richard (Wilde) is concerned that Ellen might be in some danger after being AWOL for twelve hours, Mrs. Berlant shrugs it off. Ellen is always fine, she says. When Richard watches Ellen take her time in a swimming contest with some kids, he’s assured that she always wins. These things are always said with an offhand laugh or even a firm lower lip. Ellen’s triumphs are part of what the family understands about her on the most basic level. She will always come back victorious without a scratch. It isn’t something that they dislike about her, necessarily, but Mrs. Berlant and Ruth (Crain) wear that knowledge like a little scar on an elbow or a thigh. From moment to moment it’s not troublesome but it gets a distasteful eyebrow when it’s glimpsed again.

That unswerving desire for victory, to have what she wants to have, can be called “drive” or “ambition” in more pleasant lights. If she were General Ellen Harland and not Mrs. Richard Harland, her resolve for victory would make her a formidable battlefield presence. She is not afraid of physical losses, and any battle she joins, she joins with savagery. The trouble is that she is Mrs. Richard Harland, and she is spending her time in otherwise peaceful New England towns and not on some Mycenean battlefield. In bourgeois midcentury America, the willingness to undergo increasing levels of pain and personal horror to get what she wants is not the sign of ambition but the sign of mania. There are signs for others to see. I think we are meant to see her marriage proposal to Richard as a sign of her madness, although I am more sympathetic (with my hopelessly modern eyes) to Richard’s later admission that the frantic speed of their courtship is a more worrisome signal. Aside from its rapidity, the thing that makes it so striking is that it really seems that she is more Electra than Ellen, falling for Richard (despite her personal distaste for his writing) because he bears a strong resemblance to her late father. Then there’s the scene with a doctor (Reed Hadley) at Warm Springs, where she backtracks a little from “I don’t want my brother-in-law (Darryl Hickman) Danny to come live with us because we can’t support him in our rural setting” to “I am sick of having this cripple around.” The doctor, understandably, bristles at that kind of language directed at a young man with polio, and it’s one of the rare times when we see Ellen fail to win someone over. The doctor continues making suspicious eyes at her throughout the rest of the scene, even when she apologizes for what she’s said, and if he were in Maine instead of Georgia for the remainder of the film, it probably would have saved everyone else a lot of misery.

There’s a scene early in the honeymoon phase where Ellen refuses to admit the possibility of a cook or a maid. I want to do everything for you, she tells Richard. I don’t want anyone else to cook your meals or wash your clothes or clean your house. My wife, who was in the next room, heard those lines and came in to express her (prepare for some understatement) total disbelief at this woman’s cheerful, gleaming acceptance of every kind of housework. It’s a fascinating scene in the greater context of the film. Almost every scene with Ellen alone for the rest of the picture is depicting her in some kind of scheme, plot, or malfeasance. As much as Ellen’s simple simper projects a housewife so perfect that she’d make June Cleaver commit ritual suicide in shame, this woman will go on to do a number of deeds so shamelessly horrifying that I spent about forty-five consecutive minutes with my eyes bugging out of my skull. Maybe Ellen is the perfect wife for a short time, Leave Her to Heaven says, or maybe she’s a terrific model of ’40s housewifery, but she is also a ripe sociopath. Only such a murderous woman, the film suggests, could be the perfect wife to adorn your Maine cabin.

Yet Leave Her to Heaven does not quite admit the possibility that the right woman could be anything other than a practical adornment. Where Ellen’s favorite outdoor activities are swimming and riding—fine athletic pursuits, but fundamentally recreational—Ruth beautifies the home by gardening. She is the one who models for the baby’s wall at Bar Harbor, standing up and holding a newspaper dunce cap on her head until her arms ache. During Ellen’s difficult pregnancy, Ruth steps in to assist Richard with his new novel, which he promptly dedicates to her with a sketch by his own hand of her gardening. And when after his short jail term Richard returns to Back of the Moon, he finds Ruth at the cabin, awaiting his arrival. Leave Her to Heaven has an unorthodox eye indeed on the Harland marriage. Ellen has a misstep at the doctor’s office, but she has a series of tantrums once her family show up to Back of the Moon; first Danny intrudes on her marriage, and now she has to host her family for goodness knows how long? Ellen’s gracelessness is not outright despicable, but there’s a straight line drawn between that gracelessness with company—an unwillingness to share her new husband that I am a little more empathetic about than I think I care to admit—and her series of devastatingly awful acts to come. Meanwhile, the film grows increasingly sympathetic, even during Ellen’s pregnancy, toward the possible romantic coupling of Richard, who is still totally normal, and Ruth, who is Ellen’s cousin by birth and her sister by adoption.

There are three evils that Ellen commits in the film. The first: allowing Danny to drown while she watches. The second: perpetrating a miscarriage by throwing herself downstairs. The third: committing suicide and implicating Ruth for her murder. Cinematically speaking, the first one is the most remarkable. It’s a postcard sequence. Leon Shamroy won an Oscar for this movie, and who can blame them: ’40s Technicolor just hit different. (For as many gorgeous outdoor sequences as there are in this movie, it’s the indoor ones that blew me away. That house in New Mexico, beautifully articulated in stone, has these long rooms captured best in wide-angle lenses. There’s one scene where Vincent Price walks from the front of the frame, huffy as only Vincent Price could be huffy, and it takes forever to get him to the door and leave in a rainstorm. It’s a triumph of production design, clearly, but he’s in focus the entire way, and everyone else’s faces are too.) The lake shines, the sky all but twinkles, the trees look the like best trees in the world. Danny is so sure that he’ll be able to make it across the lake, and Ellen is so disengaged that she barely even listens to him as he shares his proud plan to make it from here to there. He doesn’t get far, and for a film that kills off Gene Tierney by having her throw her head violently to her left, this sequence feels surprisingly realistic. Hickman’s stroke grows increasingly ragged as he gets further, and then, as he starts to complain of a cramp and ask for help, Ellen freezes. And watches.

This is as good as I’ve ever found Gene Tierney, who I’ve occasionally thought a little wooden. The woodenness fits her here, because it’s clear that there’s only one thought in Ellen’s head over the course of this scene, a choice between saving Danny’s life or, by cruel negligence, allowing him to drown. It takes ages, it seems, for her to make her final decision. Get rid of the kid, get your husband back. That she has no thoughts beyond “get rid of the kid,” no sense of how profoundly the death of his brother would be to Richard, is proof enough of her sociopathic process. And it’s only when she can see Richard running out of the cabin and trying to swim over that she, “a perfect swimmer,” dives into the water to begin a rescue effort that she knows is too late. There is also a rich, abundantly cruel irony in the way that she tries to talk with Richard about Danny’s death by drowning. We wanted to surprise you with his ability to swim so far, she tells him. Left unspoken are two facts. First, that Richard receives rather a different kind of surprise, and second, that the two events that sent her over the edge in reference to her husband were both phrased as surprises themselves.

The third evil is, in its own way, the most shocking twist of the film. There has been a craven, wicked logic to Ellen’s previous iniquities, but to kill one’s self in total confidence that it’ll destroy a rival is a basically unheard-of level of passive aggression, as if General Ellen’s entire strategy came down to winning a Pyrrhic victory. But it’s the second one that left me breathless, even more than the close-ups of Tierney’s face as she looks coldly at the water swallowing her teenage brother-in-law, even more than the understanding that her desired cremation was a tool to entrap Ruth in a court of law. Wisely, Stahl and Shamroy and Tierney resort to silence—or at least silence punctuated with the score—to tell the story of Ellen’s planned miscarriage, an abortion by stairs. The plan to have a baby was always, for Ellen, a way to get her husband’s mind off of Danny and to get his focus back on her. That it has led to extreme physical discomfort and genuine illness is one thing; that it has basically thrown Richard and Ruth into one another’s arms is another. (The film doesn’t give us a reason to believe, or at least doesn’t give us eyewitness proof, that there’s something suspicious going on between Richard and his sister-in-law. It would be a very different kind of movie if it had.) Not being interested in the child anyway, Ellen makes the decision to stage a trip-and-fall over the stairs that she’s not supposed to be on. From one perspective, this is the least destructive evil of the three. Perhaps one resists this particular deed as too on-the-nose a statement of how much worse a wife Ellen is than Ruth would be. And it’s worth noting that this is the killing/attempted killing which is not made on a legal human being. Yet this is still the one that most took my breath away. It requires so much willpower, and so much loathing. It is also the crime committed against the most helpless of any of Ellen’s victims. And it’s the one which really turns Richard against Ellen for good. Absent her, he begins to wonder about the ways that Ellen has constantly maneuvered him into situations where she can keep him for herself, and it’s then that he confronts her about the drowning which all of us already knew was no accident.

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